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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Shetland Entomological Group



Butterflies in Shetland

An isolated island group such as Shetland inevitably has a restricted fauna and flora. The Lepidoptera list currently stands at under 300 species, a disappointing garden list for southern England. Nevertheless, this list includes 14 species of butterfly, although many are just vagrants and records have not been systematically collected until recently, beginning in 1978 on Fair Isle and 1990 in the rest of Shetland. The following summarises the occurrences of butterflies in Shetland.

Large White   Pieris brassicae

The only resident butterfly in Shetland, although it's origins as a breeding species are a little obscure. It was obviously rare at the beginning of the century as although it is mentioned in some early lists, Bryan Beirne writing in 1945 could find no certain records. Local legend records that the species arrived in Shetland during the last war, imported in NAAFI cabbage an was exchange made in the early part of the 20th century involving Shetland Hedgehogs being swapped for Large White caterpillars from Orkney. However, Large Whites certainly occur as natural migrants, for example on Fair Isle, where there are no recent breeding records although there are records on average every second year. Whatever their origins, whether natural colonisation, deliberate or accidental introduction by man or a combination of the three, the species may be a common pest on the islands of Mainland, Unst, Yell and Whalsay, although it remains a scarce migrant on the other islands. The local resident population fluctuates, and in the early years of the 21st century it has become relatively scarce, especially on Unst. Local adults can be seen between June and early August but are migrants may be seen in May and later in the autumn until early October. Migrants are fairly scarce - just about annual in spring but rarer in autumn.

Common Blue   Polyommatus icarus

Resident in Shetland until quite recently. Although not recorded by an entomologist until it was seen by Barry Goater at Quendale in 1968, speaking to older residents of Dunrossness, the southernmost part of Mainland, suggests that the species was actually quite regularly seen in the 1950s and 60s. In addition, the Monks Wood Biological Records Centre have about ten records on their computer database, all from 1970-1975 and all from Dunrossness. Since 1980 there have only been two certain records, in Dunrossness in 1991 and on Fair Isle in 1990, although intriguingly the Dunrossness record was at a previous breeding site. However, it would appear we have lost this butterfly as a breeding species.

Red Admiral   Vanessa atalanta

Recorded annually in Shetland. Since 1990 when recording began throughout the islands there have never been fewer than 30 records in a year, while in several years there have been several hundred. The earliest record was on Foula on 20th April 1996, but most records are in June to August, especially July. The most notable recent influxes occurred in June 1990, May/June 1992, early October 1992, July 1994, late August 1997 and late June 1999. Autumn records are usually scarce, although there were several in September 1995 and 1999 and there was a sudden arrival of over 50 between 1st-5th October 1992. October records include an unknown number of locally bred adults and there are records right through to the last day of the month, although there are no November records. Although it was formerly thought to be very rare, it is now apparent that Red Admiral breeds in Shetland in most years. The foodplant is Nettle Urtica dioca. There is no evidence to suggest Red Admirals can ever overwinter in Shetland. Indeed throughout Britain this species only usually occurs as a long-distance migrant from southern Europe.

Painted Lady   Cynthia cardui

Occurs in most years, often in association with arrivals of Red Admirals. Usually this is the scarcer of the two species, although interestingly it is the most regularly recorded species from Fair Isle with almost annual records there since recording began. Fair Isle records include notable influxes in September 1978, June 1980 and particularly the famous invasion into Britain of August 1980, when there were over 300 on the island on the 1st. Such influxes must have affected the rest of Shetland, but any records have been lost. Breeding records are much scarcer for this species than the last, although there are a few on record, especially in 1994 and 1996 when good numbers occurred throughout the islands. The foodplants are thistles Cirsium or Carduus. The earliest sighting of an adults so far are individuals on Foula and Fair Isle on 3rd May 1997 with a few autumn records as late as early October. Although this species can breed in Britain it cannot overwinter and most British specimens are believed to originate in North Africa.

Small Tortoiseshell   Aglais urticae

Occurs just about every year although it is scarce. Up to 35 were on Fair Isle in August 1980, but the 10 recorded throughout Shetland in 1992 were almost as exceptional. There are no documented breeding records so far although the foodplant is Nettle Urtica dioca. All the sightings have so far fallen between mid May and mid October with no obvious pattern or favoured month apparent. Unlike the Painted Lady, this butterfly overwinters in Britain. Shetland specimens probably originate from either Britain or Scandinavia, with the preponderance of Shetland records from Fair Isle suggesting Britain is more likely.

Peacock   Inachis io

Recorded on over 50 occasions. The first two records were in the 1960s, followed by at least eight in 1975. Then there were just three further records until influxes of about 13 in 1994, mainly in the second half of August and another influx of at least 15 in 1995, again mainly in August. Since then there small influxes in 1997 and 1998, but just one in 1996 and a blank in 1998. There were about 12 in 1999 and four in 2002. Although August is the most favoured month, records of butterflies found dead in buildings in November and December, and flying in sunshine in January indicate that hibernation is at least attempted in the islands. There are no recorded breeding records. Like the Small Tortoiseshell, Shetland specimens probably originate in either Britain or Scandinavia.

Small White   Pieris rapae

This species could be easily missed amongst the commoner Large Whites but it has occurred on several occasions. The three most recent records have all been from Fair Isle in June 1978, August 1989 and July 1992 and one found indoors in Nesting in November 2000. Others have supposedly occurred on Mainland and there is a record from Yell in the 1970s but no other details have been traced.

Camberwell Beauty   Nymphalis antiopa

This is one of the most spectacular butterflies to be found in Britain where it is a scarce migrant despite being found over most of the continent. It has been recorded in Shetland on at least ten occasions, on Foula in August 1896, Scalloway on an unknown date in the 19th century, Burrafirth in August 1901, Bressay in July 1976, Lerwick in August 1982, Fetlar in 1982, Foula in August 1995, Bressay in September 1995, Exnaboe in August 1996, Scousburgh in July 1999 and Hermaness in August 2002.

Clouded Yellow   Colias croceus

A noted migrant the Clouded Yellow has been recorded in Shetland four times, the first three records coming from Fair Isle in July/August 1980 and May and August 1992 with another on Bressay in June 1998. Two other reports of this species in July 1992 were unfortunately too uncertain to be acceptable.

Swallowtail   Papilio machaon

The Swallowtail has surprisingly occurred twice in Shetland in recent years. One was found dead beside the road at Voe on Mainland on 2nd August 1994 and a second individual was seen on Fair Isle on 9th September 1995 - the two records comprising the only certain wild records for Scotland.


Several species have only occured once in Shetland. These are - a Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina seen twice on Fair Isle in June 1980 (presumably the same individual); a Small Heath Coenonympha pamphilus also seen on Fair Isle on 14th June 1980; a Monarch Danaus plexippus, a native of North America, at Bixter, West Mainland on 14th September 1941 (another on Fair Isle on 1st September 2002 was seen too briefly to be certain); and a Green-veined White Pieris napi on Bressay on 6th July 1994.

Finally there is a group of butterflies which have reputedly been seen in Shetland, but for which there is no real evidence. The most notorious of these is the Large Heath Coenonympha tullia, which was quoted as Shetland's only indigenous butterfly by almost every relevant book up until a few years ago. This appears to have arisen on the basis of a statement by Birchall in a book by Humphreys and Westwood published in 1841. Once it had been repeated by such authorities as South, whose book on butterflies was the standard text for over 60 years, the error became hard to eradicate, but there is no evidence of this species ever having occurred in Shetland.

Two specimens of Dingy Skipper Erynnis tages in the British Museum labelled Shetland 1888 are presumed to be wrongly labelled, while the sighting of Northern Brown Argus Aricia artaxerxes by the botanist Druce cannot be substantiated (indeed it was most likely to be a female Common Blue, not known to occur in the islands at the time). A probable Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas was seen in September 1997.


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